Whales in Love ; like Humans, Their Brains Are Wired for Romance ++ They Are the Touchy-Feelies of the Deep, with a Capacity to Experience Love and Attachment, Thanks to Some Tiny Cells, New Research Shows

By Knight, Renee | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), December 1, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Whales in Love ; like Humans, Their Brains Are Wired for Romance ++ They Are the Touchy-Feelies of the Deep, with a Capacity to Experience Love and Attachment, Thanks to Some Tiny Cells, New Research Shows


Knight, Renee, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


We know that they sing, sending musical waves through the deep as they travel in complex family units. We know that they appear stricken with grief when one of them dies. And now we know that the great whales of the world are capable of loving.

A remarkable new study will reveal that whales - hunted for centuries by man, and lauded in ancient literature for their mystical qualities - have the ability to experience love and also deep-rooted emotional suffering.

Two scientists - Patrick Hof and Estel Van Der Gucht, of the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology - made the breakthrough after spending 15 years studying the brains of the biggest mammals on the planet.

They did not expect to find anything unusual when they set out to study the inner workings of the large whale brain. But the scientists were determined that humans should know more about the minds of these mysterious creatures.

They discovered something that could change the way the world views whales, which are still hunted by Japan and Norway for "scientific purposes". As they studied a brain, they came across a spindle cell - a cell originally thought to live only in humans and great apes, and which allows humans to experience love and emotions.

Professor Hof told The Independent on Sunday: "I really wasn't expecting this. I stumbled on one by chance and I said, this looks like a spindle cell.

Then I saw them everywhere, and I immediately realised that we had something big."

The spindle cells were found in humpback whales, fin whales, killer whales and sperm whales - all the whales that have large brains as well as large bodies. The discovery not only means that humans and apes aren't the only ones who have these distinguishing spindle cells, but that primates were not the first to have them.

It appears that large whales have been evolving these cells for 30 million years - twice as long as humans, according to an article in New Scientist ahead of publication of the scientists' findings.

Whales also have more of these emotion-controlling cells, and early research indicates that they may have up to three times as many spindle cells as humans. In humans, these cells help process emotions and encourage the development of social interaction.

But even though the cells allow humans to feel love, more work will be needed to judge whether love is the same for humans as it is for whales, Professor Hof, the vice-chairman of the department of neuroscience, said from his off ice at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

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Whales in Love ; like Humans, Their Brains Are Wired for Romance ++ They Are the Touchy-Feelies of the Deep, with a Capacity to Experience Love and Attachment, Thanks to Some Tiny Cells, New Research Shows
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